Flint, MI—Flint Schools returned to school this week and teachers and students at Pierce Elementary said, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the return to in-person learning is going well. 

“It’s been awesome. It’s been so great to see the kids come back to school. I mean, we haven’t seen them in almost a year…We’ve been teaching them about CDC guidelines, like wearing a mask, social distancing, and staying six feet apart,” Principal of Pierce Dr. Shamarion Grace said. 

The Flint Community Schools Board of Education originally voted for students to resume in-person learning on Feb. 22, but after a tumultuous board meeting on Feb. 17 and concerns over sneeze guard installation, district officials announced that schools would not reopen. 

On March 10, after sneeze guards had been properly installed in elementary schools, the board reapproved the district’s hybrid, in-person learning plan, which offered students and their families the option to return to classrooms. 

Pre-k through 3rd grade returned March 15. Secondary schools will reopen March 22. 

At Pierce, approximately 75 of the 150 enrolled students have opted for in-person instruction. 

With younger children, there was some concern they would have trouble keeping masks on, but third grade teacher at Pierce Valerie Marshall said it has not been an issue. 

“They’ve been really good because they’ve been doing it,” she said. 

Grace said it helps to review social distancing and “what’s new about school right now” with the children each day. Students have also been given books about what it means to wear a mask and to social distance. 

Other safety provisions include signage on floors to control the flow of traffic and ensure proper social distancing, sneeze guards, personal protective equipment, and temperature check kiosks. 

Classrooms and commonly touched surfaces are sanitized every hour. Janitorial staff must sign their name and note the time on record logs to ensure they are being cleaned frequently.

A medical assistant for Pierce, Ashley Olson, was hired in February to help take care of students should they fall ill. 

“We do have a protocol. You have to take their temp. Find out what their issues are, tummy aches, sneezing, coughing. And depending on their symptoms we have to contact mom or dad,” Olson said. 

Students who display COVID-19 symptoms are sent to an isolation room to prevent further contact with others. The district considers it an outbreak if two or more individuals who work in the same building, which includes staff and students, contract the disease. 

Marshall said she’s happy to be back with her students because she can teach more effectively in person. 

“I see the need. I see that students need to be with us… Doing it virtually has been a task because [of] all sorts of barriers; attendance being a problem, technology being a problem…Now they’re going to learn what they need to learn,” she said. 

Dominque Marshall, a one-on-one paraprofessional who supports students with special needs, said it has been a challenge to work with them online. 

“Most of our one-on-ones have [behavioral issues]. I’m kind of used to them… needing that one-on-one time to walk up and down the hallways just to debrief. Virtually, I’m not able to say, ‘Hey, let’s go take a walk. Tell me how you feel right now’ or, ‘Hey, let’s go take a break,’” he said. 

Dominque Marshall is also a cosmetologist. Before the pandemic, he would reward one of students with free haircuts for good behavior. 

“When we went virtual, I was able to say, ‘Hey, if you do good, this whole month of school, I’ll give your mom the money for you to go get a haircut,” he said, adding that he’s thrilled to be able to interact with his kids again. 

But eight-year-old Jaleah Collins said what she looks forward to most about going to school is “going back home.”

“I’m kind of nervous because, it’s like, I’m back in school but everything is not the same,” she said. 

Students are spaced six feet apart at lunch tables and their food is brought to them. While they are able to attend gym class and socially distance, they are not allowed outdoor recess yet, Dominque Marshall said. 

Linda Smith, a grandmother and full-time caregiver to her three grandchildren said that while she decided to send her youngest back to Pierce, it still doesn’t feel safe. 

“I sent them back because the kids, they had a lot of adjustment doing online and doing their work and not getting the proper help that some of them need,” Smith said. “Don’t try to rush them back to school…This is March. They’ve been doing this since last year so, what is four months?” 

At Flint Schools, in-person days are staggered according to last name to maintain social distancing and safety. 

Students with last names beginning with A-L attend school on Mondays and Tuesdays. Students with last names beginning with M-Z attend school on Thursdays and Fridays. 

On Wednesdays, no students are in the buildings so they can be sanitized. 

The hectic schedule has been an adjustment for Smith. 

“I have to take more than one kid school. But by one going on Monday and Tuesday, the other one going on Thursday and Friday, it’s been a little difficult,” Smith said.  

Other parents have expressed concern for teachers to get vaccinated, Marshall said. 

About half of the district’s staff has received the vaccine, Assistant Superintendent Kevelin Jones said. 

Overall, teachers are happy to be back, Grace said. 

“It was like the first day of school…We were definitely ready. And so, I think it’s just excitement and seeing the kids and their faces and smiles. The only thing (is) you can’t hug them. So, you have to do air hugs,” she said. 

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...